Sunday, May 23, 2010

Atheism, Christianity & Environmentalism

There are two things I wonder when people decide to expound their ideas and release them to the public: how long did this person think about the topic before deciding to write an article, and what was going on in their mind when they wrote it. In the case of David Horton's article "Green and Atheist: The Incompatibility of Religion and Environmentalism" the latter thought pulsated through my head the most. Perhaps I should have also extended that thought to the editorial room and pondered what the editor was thinking before he or she allowed this article to be published.

Horton's thinking is of the horrid kind: dreadfully obtuse and deeply un-philosophical (I think that's an irony). Or perhaps it is philosophical, in a sort of way that parallels the amateur D-grade philosophy of Dick Dawkins (do people call him Dick? Or do they just call him Richard?) Skewering Horton's position, in a sort of analytic-Plantinga-to-Dawkins kind of way, is something that can only be done by Plantinga himself, since I am not an analytic Christian philosopher. But at least addressing Horton is something that should be done, since Christians ought to be able to defend what they believe.

I find it unfortunate that something so badly thought through reached the light of day. Not only does the guy display his ignorance on contemporary religious thought, he seems to be out of touch with contemporary arguments for atheism (if there is such a thing as a corpus of atheistic thought). What makes things even worse, and even more laughable, is that he is arrogant about it (Does the question "anyone disagree?" at the end signal arrogance to you too, dear reader?)

In block quotes I have listed his thoughts.

It is odd that the Libertarians among the religious, so big on self-reliance for individuals and communities, don't apply that principle to the Earth as a whole.

It seems that everyone wants to take shots at Libertarians nowadays. Tisk, tisk. He probably is not familiar with the Libertarian work "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism." In chapter 6, How Capitalism Will Save The Environment, Robert. P. Murphy explains the relationship between capitalism and environmentalism, and argues that capitalism is the best economic system to support environmentalist ventures. Who would have thought that the laws of supply and demand would kick in to conserve oil and other natural resources by raising the price when resources are low, forcing consumers to conserve the resources they have or become more efficient with their resources.

Only atheists understand, deep down, that there is no divine Lone Ranger out there coming to the rescue; that if we don't save our own planet, no one else will.

This is such an old line that I'm sure many atheists will disagree with it or won't bother using anymore. The line of thinking goes, since we only have this one life, we must protect it as much as we can. The thinking goes further: those theists, since they believe they will be going to Heaven, must have less incentive to take care of the Earth, since Earth is not their home but a pit stop to Heaven. Before I focus on the latter, I will focus on the former. Why is it that when someone reasons this way they never bring up the other side; that is, the side which says because this is the only life I have and I am going to do what I want--that brand of atheism does exist too. Not every non-believer is a principled scientist, philosopher, "Greenie" or "Darwinist" (although they don't have too many options for creation stories). Some people just don't care and are apathetic. As for the latter, Christians, as N.T. Wright explains in the video above (make sure you check out the video below too), are to be preparing the Earth now for the Kingdom to come in its fullness. Heaven is something that is coming to Earth; we are not coming to it when we die, and that theology makes a profound difference in how one views the Earth.

Religious people, even putting aside the Left Behind loonies, aren't really concerned, because they have an imaginary friend who will look after them if they are good and pray hard and wear the right clothes and don't cut their hair.

Oh really, you mean an opinion poll back in 2001 revealing that "Because God created the world, it is wrong to abuse it" doesn't matter? Should we not exclude these folks from the already excluded Left Behind loons and call them unconcerned? Since Horton is a scientist, it would be to his horror to find out that as early as 2001, Christians were pioneering the use of drought-resistant crops in famine-ridden parts of Ethiopia. Also, in 1994 what appears to be over 100 signatories have signed the "Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation." Perhaps it would be too much for evidence to contrary to find out that Christian theological seminaries actually have courses on environmentalism and stewardship, or that Christian biologists have come together to create an institution to educate the community on environmental issues. Oh no, that would be too much. Let's keep that quiet so we can keep our pro-atheist views in good standing. We wouldn't want anything to undercut our ideology (wait, our belief is not a belief). We don't want anyone to think that Christians actually care for mother nature, now do we?

[The Earth] is best helped by those who understand that these ecosystems have evolved naturally over tens of thousands of years, not by those who think the Garden of Eden was a real place and that the Biblical Flood was a real event.

This idea doesn't even follow from the premises. How does knowing about the traditional Darwinian explanation of our origins tell us whether a person will be caring or a "better helper" to the environment or not? It doesn't. Plus, he doesn't appeal to one relevant branch of science (ecology, biology, zoology, geology, etc.) to support his claim. He just makes an assertion (Big Deal). To prod further, what exactly are we supposed to know about the environment that will help us take care of the environment better? I'd also argue that the opposite is true: knowing that we have Darwinian origins can be a real downer for some. People who are of the more nihilistic bent, if they don't allow it to drive them nuts, could feel unmoved to care for the environment, despite knowing our natural theory of origins. If they feel as though human history has no ultimate purpose, that may diffuse some of that energy to help the environment.

Greenies really understand the proposition that all these species are in it together, that we are all cousins, that we all come from a common ancestor, and that all have either a complete right to exist or no right to exist, not some of one and some of another.

I'm not to sure what the second half of the sentence means but I will try my hand at it. I don't see how the replacing the common ancestor idea with the idea that we are created by one God does any harm to environmentalism, or all those cute and cuddly animals. He also implies that Christians, or at least theists, believe that because God is the creator some have the right to hold the keys to the animal kingdom--i.e. who gets in and who stays out; which animals will we eat or eat us (Yikes!Down Bambi! Down I say!)

And, I would hate to rain on his parade but what is this notion of having a right to exist? This doesn't seem to be very consistent in light of atheistic evolution. If we just happened--from the big bang to evolution--then why does anything have rights to live or not? If an atheistic big bang scenario is your starting point then you have no right to exist, you just exist.

I think Dinesh D'Souza was right in his debate with atheist ethicist Peter Singer when he said (something to the effect of)that I wonder if the animals think the same way too. In other words, if we take the position that "we have a complete right to exist" is a bear wrong for wanting a human snack when we decide to go on our camping trips? Heck, if we take this position we must ask if it is ethical for the bear to eat fish out of a river? What about the grass? Clearly, other animals don't think that other animals have the right to exist, or at least they support their right to exist right up until the moment they are consumed. Oh and since "we are all cousins" that's one heck of a round of family feud isn't it?

Ultimately I think the preceding quote is unclear. For example, what exactly does he mean by no right to exist? Does he mean it in the Libertarian sense, that people have a right to life but not a right to be supported to live? Or does he mean it in the way I think, that as Darwinians we have no ultimate rights. That all rights are contrived.

unless you really feel the wind and the sun and the smell of marshland or grassland rather than driving in your air-conditioned car from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned megachurch, blissfully unaware of being part of nature,blissfully believing that you are somehow above all that

So is this guy telling me he doesn't like air-conditioned places or doesn't drive an air-conditioned car? If he is driving something without air-conditioning (assuming it's an older car model), I'd doubt the environmentally friendliness of his car. Technology has a way of being efficient with resources and being environmentally friendly at the same time. Driving an environmentally friendly car shows awareness of environmental issues (to a limited degree) and is an environmentally friendly act in itself.

And is he really suggesting that these same megachurch-attending Christians don't have the capacity to care about the environment or bask in the splendor of nature? Tell that to the Christian Camp and Conference Association! And then follow them on Twitter!

Somehow, I think Mr. Horton is blissfully unaware of all the books on Christian environmentalism that have come out during the past decade; and I think he is blissfully ignorant about how Christians view the environment in the 2000's (and 90's). Perhaps next time, he can be a little bit more objective, you know, like science.

The rest of N.T. Wright's talk on 100Huntley can be seen here.

I'll go watch some of my imaginary friends now. They provide much comfort.

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